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Today's democracy heroes are in the fiscal trenches

The West's years of unsustainable promises on spending are hardly a model of democracy. When elected leaders, such as Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo, tell the truth on how to rein in costs, they are democracy's heroes.

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A public union member wears a protest message on his shirt while rallying against the proposed pension legislation at the Illinois state capitol in Springfield last May.

AP Photo

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The spread of democracy worldwide has stalled in recent years. One reason is obvious. Economic woes in Europe and the United States have revealed an unsettling fact: Politicians in many democracies have made unaffordable promises on spending.

Ask officials in China or any authoritarian country about the lure of democracy and they point a finger at the huge public debt of obligations caused by elected leaders from Greece to Washington to California over the years.

Why, they ask, move toward democracy if it means drowning in the red ink of unsustainable government benefits?

The recession, like a receding tide, has exposed some giant financial boulders. Democracies now need a new kind of hero, one that can “unpromise” past obligations to fit a new global economy and end this valid critique of democracy.

One unlikely hero is Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer in Rhode Island, the smallest of America’s 50 states by land mass. Over the past year, this Democrat has been sought out by many American politicians after she pulled off one of the most difficult fiscal reforms in a Western democracy.

She showed that transparent, realistic, and inclusive politics can tackle the most serious political challenge. Just two years ago, Rhode Island was among the worst states in the level of unfunded pension gap for public employees. Now it’s a model.

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